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What is 3D Printing?

Normal Earphone Diagram from Nrml.com

Recently I saw a great presentation by Nikki Kaufman, the founder of Normal, a startup that makes custom made 3D printed earphones. They have a really neat store on 22nd Street in New York City where you can walk in and get earphones made that fit your ears. Turns out not only are the interior shape of your ears different from mine but your left ear shape is different from your right ear shape. Normal uses 3D printing to create earphones that don’t fall out because they fit the interior of your ear perfectly.

Before the presentation, as I sat and waited for the fun to begin, a woman and her young daughter near me started to talk about the 3D printers on the wall and the spools of material. They wondered what they were looking at. I explained they were looking at 3D printers. Turned out they lived upstairs and stopped in because they wondered what the store did. When I said “3D printers,” they had no idea what 3D printing was or did. My guess is most people have no clue. Maybe a 3D printing overview would be useful?

These Off Beat articles are often about technology, science, and sometimes computer science, but they're mostly unscripted adventures in online research. They also teach how to define and answer real world questions with online research. They're also the last or next to last article I write for each issue of the magazine and, therefore, a way to blow off steam and relax.

Plus these Off Beat articles are meant to be fun: there will be detours.

The questions I want to answer this month: What exactly is 3D printing? And are key rings the only thing you can make with a 3D printer?

What Exactly is 3D Printing?

When I typed “what is 3d printing” in the Duck Duck Go search engine, the first result is a Wikipedia entry that calls 3D printing “additive manufacturing (AM)”. Okay, more jargon. The entry does describe how materials are added (printed) layer on layer to create three dimensional (3D = three dimensional, get it?) objects. That’s helpful.

From Maker Faire NYC, I know “materials” for some 3D printers include pancake mix and other food. But most printers use plastic or metal.

The Wikipedia entry also lists the history of printing, from 200 CE (really, the Chinese or Japanese didn’t print with wood earlier?) to 3D printing in 1984. Digital press is listed as 1993, the latest printing technology in human history. The entry also calls 3D printing robot technology which seems a little odd. Maybe it’s the automated quality of printing in three dimensions. But I think of robots as have some intelligence. A question (what is a robot?) for another day.

A more interesting, you might call it breathless, definition of 3D printing comes from the 3DPrinter.net site:

“You've heard of 3D printing from newscasters and journalists, astonished at what they've witnessed. A machine reminiscent of the Star Trek Replicator, something magical that can create objects out of thin air. It can “print” in plastic, metal, nylon, and over a hundred other materials. It can be used for making nonsensical little models like the over-printed Yoda, yet it can also print manufacturing prototypes, end user products, quasi-legal guns, aircraft engine parts and even human organs using a person's own cells.”

I wouldn’t call a Yoda model nonsensical but that’s me. And is it really true human cells can be used as additive material for these printers?

A more calm description of 3D printing is found on the SmallBizTrends.com:

“3D printing is like having a small-scale manufacturing device right in your home or office.”

Oddly enough, the SmallBizTrends description then goes off into fluffy details while the 3DPrinter site has this helpful copy several paragraphs after their showy opening copy about Star Trek, Yoda, and human organs:

“Need a part for your washing machine? As it is now, you'd order from your repairman who gets it from a distributor, who got it shipped from China, where they mass-produced thousands of them at once, probably injection-molded from a very expensive mold. In the future, the beginning of which is already here now, you will simply 3D print the part right in your home, from a CAD file you downloaded. If you don't have the right printer, just print it at your local fab (think Kinkos).”

Probably this paragraph is the best way to define a 3D printer to someone who does not know how they work or what they do. 3D printers make it easier for anyone to get spare parts at a reasonable price with less hassle.

For myself, for decades I’ve thought it would be great to build cars like computers. There might be five or six standard frame sizes for vehicles and part manufacturers would build parts to fit each frame size. You’d go to a dealer and order your car which would be built on demand or already built (if you don’t need or want custom). You could then buy a new 1967 Mustang with the latest technology for engines, brakes, and safety devices. 3D printers would make this even more possible.

Then again, there’s a reason the media focuses on how 3D printers are used to make guns: fear sells. Never mind the good a 3D printer might offer.

What Can You Do with a 3D Printer?

If we agree the best way to define 3D printing is to point out anyone can make spare parts locally, then the key point is local and self control. As Nikki Kaufman from Normal pointed out in her presentation, people are used to one size fits all automation. Everybody who likes a Hyundai Elantra buys one. But customization is limited to a few engine sizes and maybe interior features. If you want a brand new 1967 Mustang with the latest engine, brakes, and safety technology, you’re out of luck.

3D printing, in contrast, offers the possibility of individual customization. Kaufman’s company, Normal, uses 3D printers to make custom earphones because currently you have to pay $2,000 and wait a few weeks for delivery. It’s a classic business opportunity. Normal’s 3D printers provide better customization with the product ready in a few hours for $200. There should be many similar opportunities in the future. But the technology makes local creation and delivery possible, in contrast to our current centralized and global production system.

But that’s mostly theory. More fun is to look at examples like Normal headphones and other products.

Nikki Kaufman also is involved in another project called Quirky. They claim to invent two products a week with 3D printing and similar technology. People go on their website to submit new product ideas and vote on ideas from other people. Here’s how Quirky works, in their own words:

“Every Thursday, we gather a group of industry experts, friends, and community members at our headquarters in New York. Watch live as we drink beer and debate the best ideas that have been submitted. Before we’re allowed to go home, we’ve chosen the next products that we’ll begin working on.”

Kaufman’s husband happens to be CEO of Quirky, but his Twitter profile says he’s “The World’s Least Important CEO.” The “drink beer” part sounds fun but the “Before we’re allowed to go home” part sounds threatening.

When I searched Duck Duck Go for “most fun thing made with a 3d printer?” I got a few interesting results.

Hackthings.com has my natural skepticism about the hype around 3D printers yet found 10 things worth buying a printer for around $450. You can make spare parts, phone cases, wallets and purses (really? durable ones?), storage containers, and best of all: Legos! Perhaps the latter amounts to copyright infringement but making your own unique Legos beats printing a gun.

I also found Omote-3D, a company that will print a three dimensional miniature of you. Tired of a flat family portrait? Get a 3D print with miniatures of you and your family and friends! Then again, my daughter and I were in a mall recently and came across a hallway shop with laser cut three dimensional family portraits. People looked like they were frozen in chunks of glass. Mini Me plastic models of people might be fun but feel strange. Sadly, Omote-3D looks like an art project from 2012-2013 and appears to have shut down.

Another Duck Duck Go search result led to the AskMen.com site (“Become a Better Man”) which led to an article about Amazon opening up a 3D store where you can 3D printed products, as of July 2014. Most of their items are small objects like phone cases. It has potential if you can upload your own designs but that doesn’t appear to be an option.

Also while at Maker Faire NYC this year, I asked someone who has at least one 3D print shop in New York City what people printed besides phone cases. He mentioned there’s a group that works with schools to print small prosthetic devices. Kids get to see how the printers can solve a real problem and make a small difference. People who need prosthetic devices get help. The group is called e-NABLE and here’s their description of how they help people use 3D printers:

“There are people around the Globe — 3d printing fingers and hands for children they will never meet, classes of high school students who are making hands for people in their local communities, a group of people that are risking their lives to get these devices onto people in 3rd World countries and new stories every day of parents working with their children to make a hand together.”

Perhaps most interesting is using customization, crowd sourcing, and technology to help people. The “create something for yourself” aspect of 3D printing is obvious. e-NABLE shows this technology has even wider possibilities.

And since I can’t top the positive vibes of e-NABLE, probably I should stop and say we’ve answered the original questions.

Learn More



3D Printing Definitions


Ten Practical Things to Make with a 3D Printer






AskMen.com Articles




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